In a matchup of 1-3 teams, the Carolina Panthers travel to Minneapolis to play the Minnesota Vikings. Both teams need a win and are trying to get back into the playoff hunt. These two teams could easily be 3-1. The Panthers lost late to Seattle and Buffalo, and the Vikings late to Chicago and Cleveland.
The Panther defense has been great all year. They are third in yards allowed and points (giving up only 14.5 per game). The strength of the defense is Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson, and the rest of the front seven. The main culprit in the Panthers’ slow start has been the inconsistency of playmaking in the passing game. Cam Newton has struggled and is our 18th ranked quarterback with a -0.7 passing grade. The offense as a whole is 30th in passing yards and while Newton doesn’t have the most competent receiving corps he still has the ability to play better.
The Vikings rely on the tough running of Adrian Peterson, who is still waiting on the return of the dominant run blocking from a year ago. The weak spots for the Vikings have been the defense and the QB position (which they are hoping Josh Freeman can help remedy). They rank 26th overall with a -27.9 PFF team defensive rating. They are struggling with both stopping the run and in coverage. That being said, here’s my first matchup to look out for.
Cam Newton vs. Vikings Cornerbacks
Cam Newton is still trying to replicate some of the success from his rookie year and from the second half of last year. This year he is far too reliant on play action. He has a 122 QB rating with play action and a 64.2 rating without (29th in the league). He has been holding onto the ball too long, and needs to improve his ability to diagnose blitzes and coverages pre-snap. These are all things that a third year quarterback should be better able to execute. Overall, he is simply struggling (like many others) to become an effective pocket passer. He has the talent to pick up his game, with his great running ability and strong arm. Newton has a great matchup this week, now let’s see how he performs.
The Vikings’ coverage needs a lot of work. They currently rank 24th in coverage in our team rating and 30th in the league in passing yards allowed. Josh Robinson is struggling tremendously in the slot and overall. He’s allowed 35 of 38 possible completions for 391 yards. That is a 92.1% completion rate and over 8% worse than the next corner on the list. They do get starter Chris Cook back this week. Cook, along with Marcus Sherels, and Xavier Rhodes, has a positive coverage grade, but I doubt we will see all three on the field at the same time. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said this week that he plans on sticking with Robinson. If Robinson is on the field expect Cam Newton to be targeting him early and often.
Adrian Peterson and co. vs. Panthers Run Defense
Despite not having the huge rushing totals of 2012, Adrian Peterson is still having a monster year. His 87.6 Elusive Rating tops all running backs by a wide margin (next highest is Demarco Murray’s 64.6). He’s also forced 26 total missed tackles and is still on pace for almost 1,700 yards and 20 TDs. He needs more from his blocking to replicate last year. John Sullivan is currently the 22nd ranked center after a year in which he was second in run blocking and our top graded center overall. He needs Sullivan to return to 2012 form. John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph have also regressed as both are each currently under a -3.0 run block grade after finishing last year in the positive. The Vikings are also hoping that getting a healthy Jerome Felton acclimated to the offense will give them another boost.
Almost every player in the Panthers’ front seven grades positively against the run. Star Lotulelei is third in our Rookie of the Year rankings and has a stout +5.8 run grade. Greg Hardy (+8.4 overall grade) and Kawan Short (+4.1) have been positives, and Luke Kuechly is our third rated ILB with a +6.0 run grade. This is a solid strength versus strength matchup. The key to stopping the Vikings always starts with slowing down AP. Carolina has the tools to do that, but the Vikings have room for improvement up front. This physical matchup should be fun to watch.
Charles Johnson vs. Phil Loadholt
Charles Johnson is currently fourth in pass rushing out of all 4-3 defensive ends with a +6.9 grade. He has 25 QB pressures and his 16.7 Pass Rush Productivity rating also leads all ends. This coming off a year where he had 14 sacks and 49 pressures, was second in pass rushing grade and pass rush productivity rating. He also has had help in the form of Greg Hardy, whose 35 pressures and 13 sacks last year and positive production this year make it hard to double team Johnson. So far Johnson has proven to be worthy of the large contract many were skeptical of. If he can have a big-money game this week Carolina will be going home with a chance to get to .500.
Phil Loadholt has been solid as usual with his run blocking. He is currently our top graded RT in run blocking (+4.4) and is well on pace to replicate his strong 2012 season. He has struggled a little with his pass blocking, allowing 10 hurries and 3 sacks which contribute to his -2.1 grade in this area. His 93% Pass Blocking Efficiency is ranked 43rd out of 62 tackles. Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder have both struggled with pressure. The job Loadholt does on Charles Johnson could be a deciding factor in this game.
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